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17. Learning, playing, and falling asleep: Portuguese nonfiction picturebooks for every occasion

Inês Costa (1983) is a PhD student in Literary Studies at University of Aveiro. Her research is funded by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (SFRH/BD/136143/2018). Her latest co-edited book is Mix & Match: Poéticas do Hibridismo (2020).

This chapter focuses on the literary and artistic analysis of three contemporary Portuguese nonfiction picturebooks: Ir e Vir (2012), ABZZZZ… (2014), and O Que Há? (2012). It aims to identify the specific elements that enable the inclusion of these books in the categories of information books, alphabet books, and game books. One also intends to bring up for discussion the traditional evaluation of nonfiction books based on their educational purposes rather than on their literary quality.

Keywords: information books, alphabet books, game books, Planeta Tangerina, Isabel Minhós Martins


Over the last two decades, Portuguese children’s literature has become more internationally relevant, due to its increasing quality and to the willingness of some publishers to take risks, making room for new artists and their fresh and edgy experiments. The international recognition is measured by the global and consistent acquisition of translation rights and by the amount and importance of the received literary and artistic awards. Just to mention a few, in 2014, the book O Meu Avô, by Catarina Sobral, won the International Award for Illustration at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. In 2013 and 2019, two Portuguese publishing houses, Planeta Tangerina and Orfeu Negro, respectively, won the Bologna Prize for the Best European Children’s Publishers of the Year. By the end of 2018, Isabel Minhós Martins – currently the most translated Portuguese children’s author – was one of the finalists of the NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature. Therefore, this chapter focuses on three picturebooks written by this Portuguese author and published by Planeta Tangerina (Fig. 17.1). Although most of Isabel Minhós Martins’ oeuvre is labelled as fiction, these three picturebooks can clearly be identified as nonfiction literature (Colman, 2007; Kiefer & Wilson, 2011). As I intend to prove, they fit in three very distinct nonfiction categories such as information books, alphabet books, and game books. Another interesting aspect of this corpus is that these picturebooks were illustrated by three different artists, all of them internationally awarded and part of the team of Planeta Tangerina. The main purpose of this chapter is to analyse the textual and visual strategies employed by the author and the different illustrators and to identify the specific elements that enable the inclusion of these books in the three mentioned categories. The focus on the aesthetic features aims to counteract the traditional evaluation of nonfiction books based on their educational purposes rather than their literary quality (Kiefer & Wilson, 2011, p. 294).

Figure 17.1

Ir e Vir (2012), by Isabel Minhós Martins and Bernardo Carvalho, ABZZZZ… (2014), by Isabel Minhós Martins and Yara Kono, O Que Há (2012), by Isabel Minhós Martins and Madalena Matoso, Planeta Tangerina.

Reproduced with permission.

Ir e VIR, an Information Picturebook

The first picturebook, Ir e Vir [Coming and Going] (2012), illustrated by Bernardo Carvalho, raises awareness of the unsustainable way humans travel around the globe, differentiating themselves from other species able to migrate (by air, water or on the ground) without harming the planet. It starts by recalling how humans moved around in the prehistory, how they, then, invented the wheel, cars, boats, airplanes and rocket ships, and how it became easier and easier to travel and transport commodities. Although the human inventiveness is praised, it comes along with the awareness of how we became so self-absorbed in our comfort and civilizational conquests, disregarding other species and the environment at large. Growing from a narrative to an expositive style (Colman, 2007, p. 263), and to put things into perspective, the narrator then gives a few examples of other animals that make impressive journeys in a much subtle way. Terns and monarch butterflies are admired for performing long migrations, despite their small size, longevity, or apparent fragility, while, conversely, airplanes are recalled for not being able to fly without releasing harmful gases. From the sky to the sea, baleen whales and tunas are applauded for their long – despite their weight – or fast locomotion. Once more, motorised vehicles (in this case, freighters) are used for comparison and, again, animals emerge, at least morally, victorious. Lastly, land animals are praised for their capacity to travel vast distances in extreme conditions.

The text leans on literary strategies that are usual in books intended for children: rhymes, repetition, long enumeration of objects that can somehow be included in the same category (e.g. “we could now carry / everything around town: / clothes, shoes, timber, pears, / cars, flour, clocks, chairs, / mangoes, bananas, garlic and biscuits / flowers and computers… / and little rubber ducks.”). It also includes humorous notes or passages, like the one just quoted. Drawing upon different punctuation marks – e.g. ellipsis, exclamation points, question marks, colons, parentheses for asides or explanations – and typographic variations, the author creates an interesting reading rhythm that also takes advantage of the page turns. At times, the reader’s attention is convoked by the narrator (“Just look”, “Imagine”), but not in a patronising way. In fact, the recurrent use of “we”, “us” and “our” makes clear that both reader and narrator are in the same boat: as humans, they both perpetrate the selfish and greedy behaviour. The narrator’s complicity in the criticized conduct recalls Sanders’ “visible author” (2018, p. 55–64), i.e. by acknowledging its imperfections, the “visible author” divests itself of its authority and, therefore, makes room for critical engagement.

Bernardo Carvalho chose collage as the art technique, assembling multiple coloured cellophane sheets previously cut in several shapes (Fig. 17.2). The layering of more than one sheet of different shades or colours gives depth to each illustration and the semi-transparent material allows that, even overlapped, different shapes (whether depicting trees, animals, humans or smoke) remain visible and distinct. Colours play a major role in each illustration: warm colours like red, orange, or yellow are used to imply African savannahs where zebras and wildebeests run free; different shades of blue and green allude, respectively, to the ocean or sky and to trees or forests; yellow is often associated with the sun or bright dawns, and grey with smoke and pollution. These two aspects – multiple layering and colouring – present in most of the illustrations, are oddly absent in the last doublespread: this time, the white background and the minimal amount of shapes help to create a pause for introspection and, again, critical engagement (Sanders, 2018). Depictions of movement and shadows are also impressive. Round shapes are used to represent volatile natural elements (e.g. clouds, wind, or water) or objects in movement or with less defined contours (e.g. treetops), while angular shapes are mainly employed in tree trunks or human creations such as cars, airplanes, and cranes. The simultaneous presence of round and angular shapes adds multiple dimensions to each illustration. It also contributes to the illusion of different speed movements (e.g. in Fig. 17.2, the horizontal disposition of angular shapes suggests a much faster movement than the one depicted in the previous doublespread where a man is running).

Figure 17.2

Ir e Vir (2012), by Isabel Minhós Martins and Bernardo Carvalho, Planeta Tangerina.

Reproduced with permission.

Considering the theme and the mentioned textual and visual features, does Ir e Vir qualify as an information picturebook? The definition of information book (let alone information picturebook) is far from consensual. Heeks (2005) recalls their traditional purpose: “information books have set out to present facts about a specific subject” (p. 429). Mallett (2004) defends that information texts are those “whose main intention is to impart knowledge and ideas” (p. 622). Nikola von Merveldt (2018) adds that “informational books distinguish themselves from textbooks and scholarly books by their desire to amuse, entertain, and inspire their readers – they popularize knowledge to make it accessible” (p. 232). One can agree that Ir e Vir presents facts about a specific subject (whether it is environment or ecology at large or the contrast between humankind and wildlife), however it is plausible to think that the author’s intention is both to impart knowledge and ideas and to amuse, entertain, and inspire young readers. This possibility probably increases Heeks’ concerns when she states: “we are not yet clear whether information books are in the business of presenting facts or communicating with readers” (2005, p. 436). Current trends, in which the pedagogical purpose is not more important than offering a pleasant aesthetic experience to the reader, led von Merveldt (2018) to stress that “the boundaries of what still qualifies as an informational picturebook are fluid” (p. 233).

This particular book indeed lacks features that some may consider essential in an information book: a table of contents or index to offer a clear guide to the book’s coverage and to help the reader to find specific information (Heeks, 2005, p. 431); glossaries, maps and timelines to clarify and organise information; or any other paratextual framing that establishes the authorial credibility and the accuracy of the content, such as the author’s biography, forewords by authorities in the field, indication of scientific proofreading, bibliographic references, etc. (von Merveldt, 2018, pp. 235–241). One can also add that the information given isn’t very precise, being presented in round figures, or that illustrations don’t even respect a real scale. All these aspects are certainly relevant in an educational context – in fact, most of the scholars who tried to define information books were mainly focused on their potential use in instructional processes, especially regarding science teaching (Donovan & Smolkin, 2002; Mallett, 2003; Pappas, 2006) –, but are they essential in a more informal recreational context, being the main purpose to deliver, in an overview perspective, a light amount of information, simply offering food for thought and a stimulating aesthetic experience? Sanders (2018) answers this question by conceiving nonfiction literature as a field that should aim to promote inquiry and critical engagement instead of authoritatively presenting facts. Furthermore, despite the literary and visual literacy, should one disregard the important role these picturebooks might play as a transitional reading for more complex genres of information texts (Mallett, 2003, p. 111)?

Considering its global structure, style and disposition of information, Ir e Vir fits in the category of narrative information books (Mallett, 2003). It also meets most of the criteria established by Donovan and Smolkin (2002) for the same category, although these authors impose a sequence of the factual events over time, mainly associating the category to life cycles or procedures (p. 506). Mallett (2003), in turn, subdivides the narrative information books in four different categories: “life cycles, journeys, instructions (e.g. for experiments and recipes) and information stories” (p. 88). Ir e Vir would fit in the latter. But, then again, terminology is ambiguous, since some authors only use the term “story(ies)” when both fiction and nonfiction are present (Donovan & Smolkin, 2002, pp. 504–505). In general, Ir e Vir meets Mallett’s criteria of a good narrative nonfiction book, such as having a strong structure; a lively but clear language; an interesting authorial voice; appealing illustrations; “a spark of originality and the qualities which fascinate and involve young readers, encouraging them to talk, reflect and want to find out more” (2003, p. 91), being the latter the openness to critical engagement praised by Sanders (2018).

ABZZZZ…, an Alphabet Book

Mallett (2004) inserts ABCs or alphabet books on the list of “children’s very first books with an informational function” (p. 623). Lately, however, more than their educational uses when it comes to knowing the letters (order, shape, sound, etc.), scholars have been stressing the importance of alphabet books as tools to “provide access to a range of other verbal and visual skills” (Nodelman, 2001, p. 236). As Silva and Martins (2016) claim, an alphabet book is an “useful instrument that, explicitly or implicitly, prompts the child to an early contact with the double artistic dimension that characterizes this type of publications” (p. 161). In fact, as Litaudon (2018) argues, “nowadays the ABC book is a genre which is mostly devoted to the celebration of the creative act” (p. 177).

Considering the myriad of existing alphabet books, it seems more and more difficult to create something unique and original in such a structured type of publication. ABZZZZ… (2014), by Isabel Minhós Martins and Yara Kono, has an interesting approach, using the sequential enunciation of the alphabet as a countdown to get children to sleep. The book requests an interactive behaviour from the first page: it brags that it “never fails […] nearly everyone is snoring by the time they reach S” and, addressing the reader directly, poses the challenge: “How many letters will there be before you drop off?”. The journey starts with recurrent invitations and instructions that require the reader to be physically involved (e.g. “Try closing your eyes for 3 seconds. Let’s count… 1, 2, 3. See? Nothing scary happened!”). The tone and methods for persuasion vary from explanations of the benefits of sleeping (e.g. “sleep is a wonderful way to tidy up your brain”) or asking the reader to imagine themself elsewhere (“Now we’re somewhere warm and sunny…”), to appeals for the imitation of successful examples (cats curling up and purring or bears hibernating) or even the use of reverse psychology mixed with subtle threats (e.g. “if you want to be the last to fall asleep, that’s ok. But, as in races, the last one is a rotten egg”). By Z the book has been switched off and, if the reader is still awake, there’s only one last resort: a red button that they need to press to be turned off. Again, a physical interaction is requested, demanding an active participation.

Most pages have the same structure and content disposition (Fig. 17.3), a common feature in alphabet books. In this case, the capital letter is centred on the top of the page and right below there’s a word or small sentence (also in uppercase) that starts with the featured letter. The rest of the page is filled with the illustration and one or two paragraphs with a variable placement. This creative option – of placing the text inside or around the illustration, both centred or right- or left-aligned, of using different font sizes and styles or resorting to intraiconic remarks – helps to break the monotony that alphabet books are more prone to have. The textual register is informal, even colloquial, not only considering the use of the pronoun “you”, but also the use of expressions such as “Come on…” or “Ok, ok…” and the use of made-up rhyming sayings (e.g. “Like they say: ‘If you want to stay bright, sleep well this night!’”). Playing with words and other literary devices like anaphora, alliteration, or rhymes is also recurrent. The linearity is, sometimes, promoted – which, again, is likely harder to achieve in an alphabet book – and, other times, intentionally broken (e.g. on Q, the reader is asked to go to T to see what happens next). In this latter case, the alphabetic order is dismissed, which suggests the secondary role of the alphabet. The protagonism is given to the interactiveness with the reader and to the task of convincing them to go to sleep. Considering the list of features that Mallett (2003) considers appealing in an alphabet book, one finds most of them in ABZZZZ…: an organising theme to give coherence; an imaginative choice of headwords; a dynamic that invites readers to interact with the text; originality in format and style to catch the young imagination; a lively written text and intriguing and challenging illustrations (p. 32). The only characteristic missing is the use of “clear letters in both upper and lower case to make for easy demonstration and familiarization” (Mallett, 2003, p. 32), supporting the hypothesis of a less pedagogical concern.

Figure 17.3

ABZZZZ… (2014), by Isabel Minhós Martins and Yara Kono. Planeta Tangerina.

Reproduced with permission.

Yara Kono’s illustrations are intriguing and challenging; and they enhance the sense of cohesion. Even though two pages don’t perform as a doublespread, which is often visually reinforced by different background colours, one easily finds connections between facing pages. It might be the presence of continuous lines or geometric similarities (Fig. 17.3), or the focus on the same element in two different moments (e.g. A–B). The economy of colours – mainly bright red, yellow and blue, along with black and white – meets simplicity where it’s needed (e.g. on X, a yellow circle illustrates the Portuguese word for pee followed by “Ok, this one is important. Did you go before you got into bed?”). In other cases, Yara Kono adds details that unfold mininarratives (in the English version, the red balloon on Q resembles the balloon inflated by the child on O), intertextualities, or other interartistic references (e.g. a yellow submarine or an Alice card soldier) and humorous notes (e.g. lost socks in several pages). Some of her choices (e.g. the presence of a Yoda toy) may push the book into the crossover universe (Beckett, 2012). If alphabet books are supposed to expose the reader to the sound of letters and language, they require – at least at an early stage – a mediator that already knows the alphabet and its sound (Nodelman, 2001, p. 236). It seems, then, logical that an alphabet book should be appealing both to the child and to the adult mediator. However, in this case, this strategy seems to envision the adult not only as a mediator but as a reader on its own.

O Que Há, A Game Book

O Que Há [What’s inside?] (2012), by Isabel Minhós Martins and Madalena Matoso, is the first book of the Round Corners collection of Planeta Tangerina. According to the publisher, in these “interactive and digital paper books”, “readers can take part in creating each adventure – having fun, playing, and producing sound and movement”.1 Though undeclared, the round-corners format suggests that the collection is best suited for younger children.

The front cover doesn’t unveil the playfulness of the content and neither the title. The latter is, in fact, unclear (the “inside” and the question mark in the English title are nowhere to be found in the original). As one opens the book, it is revealed that the title is the repeated beginning of a series of questions: “What’s inside mum’s handbag?”; “What’s inside the hall table drawer?”; “What’s on the kitchen counter?”. Each of these questions is followed by a doublespread with several objects orderly laid out (Fig. 17.4). Below each object there is a caption. The caption can be redundant (e.g. “a fire truck”: the reader already has this information in the illustration); it can add information that will be useful later and could have possibly been ignored in a brief look at the image (e.g. “a lipstick with a squashed tip”); it can be explanatory (e.g. “some nylon thread used to make fishing lines”); or can add information about the family that owns these objects, adding narrativity to the book (e.g. “a jug my dad hates and my mum loves”). The reader promptly understands that the voice behind these captions belongs to a child, not only due to some naively detailed remarks (e.g. “a diary tied with an elastic band with three pieces of paper sticking out”), but also due to personal comments about the narrator’s early life (e.g. “a dummy that used to be mine”).

Figure 17.4

Que Há (2012), by Isabel Minhós Martins and Madalena Matoso, Planeta Tangerina.

Reproduced with permission.

The lower right corner holds a question or instruction. Visually, they differentiate themselves from the captions for the placement in the doublespread and for the use of a highlighted uppercase font. The answer to the question may be found a few pages ahead (“Where is the other earring?”), on that same page (“How many paper clips are there in this drawer?”) or may require previous knowledge (“Do you know a story with three bowls like these?”). A deductive reasoning may also be required: “What does not need to be kept in the fridge?” or “Which three things did I bring in from the garden?”.

Although depicting objects instead of characters, the visual structure of the doublespreads shares some features with wimmelbooks (Rémi, 2011, 2018): the same perspective view to depict a large amount of information “in a certain degree of disorder and chaos” (Rémi, 2011, p. 117) – though I’ve claimed the objects are orderly laid out, a chaotic feeling is induced when one thinks of bottle caps laid next to a roll of sticky tape – and an invitation to the reader to take their time to analyse each object and to think about the correlation that might exist between them. In fact, each object holds an implicit mininarrative and the reader’s eyes can wonder around and stare at each image without a specific order – although, in a few cases, the captions do require to be read in order: “a bus ticket from last year”, “a dirty paper tissue (also from last year)”. What mainly distinguishes this book from wimmelbooks is that the latter are usually wordless and, unlike game or puzzle books, are known for “lacking clear rules or instructions” (Rémi, 2011, p. 117). One can, then, classify O Que Há as a visual game book as it invites “the reader to interact with the pictures, find hidden objects, compare changes from one picture to another, match, predict ahead, create stories, or visually play with illusions and transformations on the page” (Dowhower, 1997, p. 61).

Although game books are often considered nonfiction, one might claim that this book has a certain level of hybridism (Lierop-Debrauwer, 2018), as a fictional universe is revealed through captions and illustrations: the objects tell the story of the family of the author of the captions. The gender of the protagonist is undefined – one could only guess based on their toys and clothing –, but an attentive reader infers that they live with their parents, a small sister (that smudges the walls with her mother’s red lipstick), a close grandmother that likes to knit and to make puddings, and a dog (a can of dog food sits on the kitchen counter). It is also possible to infer that this family celebrates Christmas and enjoys spending time outside – on the beach, in the garden, fishing, catching small flowers, dried leaves and shells – and playing traditional games like cards and domino. The broken pieces, the pens without lids and the protagonist remarks (a mobile phone “left behind on the kitchen counter”, a “deck of cards almost certainly incomplete”, a block of butter which should be in the fridge but “somebody forgot to put it away”) stress the normal disorganization and untidiness of a house with two small children. All the details reveal that this book intends to impart different reading levels, suggesting implied readers of different ages. Besides the discreet fictional universe, what makes this book captivating is that the questions and challenges are just the first fine layer of playfulness and interactiveness. With only two colours – red and green –, other than black and white, Madalena Matoso created a complex universe where the impalpable and unseen are depicted (e.g. the sunlight shining through blinds or the objects that are missing, drawn with dashed lines) and the intraiconic text plays an important role (e.g. the missing items on the fridge are written on the shopping list). As a true postmodern picturebook (Sipe & Pantaleo, 2008; Wolfenbarger & Sipe, 2007), with its characteristics of playfulness, intertextuality, nonlinearity, self-referentiality (“What’s inside this book?”), self-mocking tone and antiauthoritarian text (Goldstone, 2002), O Que Há exceeds its own content and invites the reader to “[enrich] and [support] the storyline by infusing personal emotions and experiences [and to] actively creat[e] parts of the narrative” (Goldstone, 2002, p. 366). The same postmodern characteristics were also found in ABZZZZ….

Final Considerations

These three Portuguese picturebooks share the purpose of inspiring readers and combining nonfiction content with aesthetic sophistication. In fact, as Kiefer and Wilson (2011, p. 291) argue, the concern about aesthetic quality is simply what distinguishes works of literature, whether fiction or nonfiction, from other works. In the best-case scenario, both text and illustrations can contribute to achieve a higher artistic level, turning the book into an aesthetic object. Whether resorting to hybridism – a term associated with works that incorporate both fiction and nonfiction, and which in adult literature can be considered as creative nonfiction (Bloom, 1998) – or to simpler narrative strategies to convey meaning, these books can be appealing for young readers as they “offer more of a literary experience and may be read all the way through like a fiction text” (Mallett, 2003, p. 92). They can also appeal to educators who desire to improve their children’s visual and literary skills, and “critical literacy” (Sanders, 2018). These picturebooks also have in common the requirement for the reader’s participation: an active participation that goes beyond the passive act of reading. In fact, these “new narrative guidelines […] propose a stimulating deconstruction of the act of reading” (Silva, 2018, p. 258). The reader is not only invoked, but asked to co-author the story (Goldstone, 2002). The book becomes an interactive object that poses challenges (whether immediate, as in ABZZZZ… or O Que Há, or for the long run, as in Ir e Vir), prompting the reader to reflect and assume more sustainable behaviours. As Sanders (2018) advocates, this antiauthoritarian approach signals an openness to dialogue and critical engagement – to question instead of blindly relying –, while the sentimental identification and immersive strategies drive the reader to an effective response to the call for action.

Children’s nonfiction seems to be following the path that children’s fiction once had to tread: stepping aside from the focus on the pedagogical utility – certainly inherent to all literary works (Nikolajeva, 2016) – and embracing more ludic and artistic approaches. Ultimately, one can argue that the borders between genres and categories are more and more diffuse; this leads us to question whether there will be any gains from a strict demarcation between them.


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